DETROIT — Pretty goals are for highlight films. Gritty goals and physical play are what win playoff games, as the Detroit Red Wings learned last season when their flashy offense and record 62 regular-season victories didn't lead them to the Stanley Cup championship they've been seeking since 1955.
In recent years, the Red Wings based their game on finesse and puck control, capitalizing on the offensive creativity and sound defensive instincts of their "Russian Five" unit and an array of fast but small forwards. That brought them the overall point title last season, but it wasn't as effective in the playoffs, when defenses tighten and hitting picks up. The Red Wings were pushed to six games by Winnipeg and needed a seventh-game overtime goal to squeeze past St. Louis before losing to Colorado in six games in the Western Conference finals.
"When I played against them, we didn't have much of a counterattack. What you did was take the body and finish your checks," said right wing Kirk Maltby, obtained by Detroit from Edmonton late last season. "If you did that, you knew you were going to be able to win the game in the long run."
No longer. These are the new, tougher, bigger Red Wings, willing to take a hit and wade into traffic around the net to pounce on rebounds or to bang opponents and wear them down. "You especially need grit, and you must be willing to play the price," center Sergei Fedorov said.
Their new size and fortitude were crucial in their six-game victory over St. Louis in the opening round of the playoffs, which they accomplished despite being shut out twice in the first four games. Those traits will again be key factors when they face the Mighty Ducks in the teams' Western Conference semifinal playoff series, which begins today at Joe Louis Arena.
"I think it was real encouraging that toward the later part of the St. Louis series we scored a bunch of goals we consider gritty-type goals, and that's something we had a tough time doing last year," defenseman Bob Rouse said. "Last year, we were more prepared for a wide-open type of series. This year, we're more prepared for whatever they throw at us. We've got some real fast guys that can skate and a lot of guys with grit."
Although the Red Wings' 38-26-28 record didn't match their exploits of last season, the early-season acquisition of power forward Brendan Shanahan from Hartford for defenseman Paul Coffey and the boundless energy of the "Grind Line" of Maltby, Kris Draper and Darren McCarty or Joe Kocur have transformed them into a better playoff team.
Shanahan, in addition to the size (6-3 and 218 pounds) and physical bent that alone would make him a premier player, has excellent hands and an impressive scoring knack. He had 50-goal seasons with St. Louis in 1993 and 1994 and he led the Red Wings in scoring this season with 47 goals (20 of them on the power play) and 88 points. "When you talk about those gritty goals, he's the guy you talk about," Rouse said. "He gives us an extra dimension that we didn't have before."
In adding tenacity and size, the Red Wings didn't have to sacrifice speed, skill or defense. Which is just as well, because they will need every ounce of speed and every bit of their resolve to break the Ducks' defensive trap, which limited the Red Wings to three goals in four regular-season games.
But now, after the emergence of the Grind Line during the St. Louis series, the Red Wings have a weapon that can diversify their offense or function as a checking line against the Ducks' top line of Paul Kariya, Steve Rucchin and Teemu Selanne.
"I think in a seven-game playoff series, grit is more important. In one game, it's not as much of a factor," said Shanahan, who led the Red Wings in scoring in the first round with three goals and six points. "Against St. Louis it played a big factor. We wore them down, especially their defensemen."
Close behind Shanahan was Draper, with two goals. McCarty scored the winner in Game 6. "We didn't get too many fancy goals," Maltby said. "There was a lot of crashing and banging and forcing turnovers. You have to work hard for your goals in the playoffs, and you've got to go to the net."
Said Steve Yzerman, expected to center for Shanahan and the fearless Tomas Sandstrom: "Playing against St. Louis, a tight defensive team, I think we were more comfortable playing that way. We didn't try to force the issue and try to open things up. We were more patient. We would chip it in and chip it out."
That's not to say the Red Wings have turned into a bunch of plumbers. They still have an impressive amount of skill throughout their lineup, far more than the Ducks, and they have more offensive options.